SOUTHERN HISTORIAN STRIKES A BLOW AGAINST SOUTHERN IDENTITY | 1999-07-31
215 Lexington Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10016
July 27, 1999
In his recent article, Forrest McDonald refers to a group of Americans he calls "southerners." Who are these people? Hawaiians are southerners. So are Puerto Ricans. All the vast population of southern California is made up of southerners. That is, each of these groups comes from what is geographically the southern part of the United States. But McDonald does not seem to be referring to any of them. He is talking about the losing side in the Civil War, which does not include any of these people.
Before McDonald, National Review had many, many articles dealing with Southerners, a regional group which has the identity McDonald seems to be referring to. But it is simply wrong, not to mention insulting to some of us, to refer to our region as "the south," or to us as "southerners." I realize that Russell Kirk invented a schizophrenic system of capitalizing "the South" and writing "southern" in the lower case. This is absolutely unique and idiosyncratic, and amounts to nothing more than bad spelling. I would appreciate National Review continuing to refer to my people as Southerners. We have a history and a culture which is worthy of that much respect.
Robert W. Whitaker
Forrest McDonald is one of those people who has gotten a great reputation for defending dead Southerners in history. He therefore has a lot of valuable capital that can be used by liberals and respectable conservatives in their present battle against living Southerners. His latest article in National Review shows how that sort of capital can be used.
In real world politics, words are the main weapon. One of the first victories of the civil rights movement was when blacks got publications to stop writing "negro" and got the word capitalized. This looks tiny, but actually it was very important. It showed that, by the 1940s, there was a black reading public, and publications recognized that.
Exactly the same thing happened in the case of the Jews. There was a time when "jew" was freely used as a verb. There was a time when writers freely used the uncapitalized terms "jews" and "jewish." Once again, it was a major victory when the ADL and other groups managed to end this disrespectful lack of capitalization of the title of a legitimate identity group.
I hate this campaign to put "Southern" in the lower case, because I feel so absolutely alone in being against it. If you look, you will see that it is spreading steadily. There was a time when even our enemies would capitalize "the South" and "Southerners." But more and more, especially with the help of people like McDonald, the campaign to take away this recognition of our identity is gaining ground.
If we allow this trivialization of Southern identity to advance, we cannot win the bigger battle. If it weren't worth doing, our enemies wouldn't be doing it.
An otherwise sincerely pro-Southern Yankee, Russell Kirk, gave a big boost to this "southern" business. He used a really weird system of capitalization in his 1951 book "John Randolph of Roanoke." He capitalized "South" but not "Southerners."
This nonsense of putting "southern" and "southerners" in the lower case was a complete invention by Kirk. It is simply absurd, and it is simply bad spelling. Absolutely nobody capitalizes the name of a group, like Jews, and then uses the small letter in the adjective: You NEVER say "Jews are jewish." Such things are only invented by people who want to make a semi-apology for the South.
Kirk's schizophrenic nonsense was one of those totally weird attempts to appease those who hate the South. It was like the insane business of abandoning the flag on the South Carolina dome for a square Confederate flag (Please see July 24 article, "Why So Many Right Wingers Go Nuts").
And our enemies know how to capitalize fully on such apologies. Every enemy of the Confederate flag now uses the term "navy jack," which was coined by OUR apologizers*, to put down the flag on the South Carolina capitol. Actually there was at least one diagonal Confederate battle flag like the one on the state house dome, while the navy jack was one-third farther across than the one on the state house dome. So the modern, diagonal Confederate flag is NOT a navy jack. But, in their desperation to apologize, the people on our side have given our enemies this club to beat us with, and there is no way we will ever correct this.
Those who want to put all references to our identity in small letters -- and all references to other, "real," groups in capitals -- know how to use Southern apologizers. Just as flag opponents all use "navy jack" to put down the Confederate flag, these people find the Kirk-McDonald apology for "southerners" highly useful.
Before Forrest McDonald's article, National Review always correctly referred to those of us who are part of the South as Southerners. For no reason whatsoever, McDonald has now changed that, and has made a major contribution to the campaign to refer to a group called "southerners," which puts us in the same category as Hawaiians, Angelenos, and Puerto Ricans. Since conservatives constitute the only group which might actually show some respect for our Southern identity, this was a major blow for those of us who are still Southerners.
*An "apologist" is "one who speaks or writes in defense of a faith, a cause, or an institution." An apologist is the exact opposite of an apologizer.